By Mike Hembree
A happy coincidence in the 1950s led to change for the national park system.
The Baby Boom of the post-World War II period increased the population of children in the United States dramatically. At the same time, the country was becoming increasingly mobile. Many veterans returning from the military had the money to buy their first cars, and families began planning vacations to places other than Grandma’s house.
Many families lived within driving distance of a national park, making vacation trips to enticing parks an easy choice. Park visitation numbers climbed—from about 21 million annually before the war to about 56 million in 1955. While this increase in visitation was good for the park system, it also had some negative consequences. Pressures on the parks increased. Services were stretched. Traffic caused a myriad of problems. Some parks were showing wear and tear.
Officials reacted with Mission 66, a 10-year plan to rehabilitate and enhance the parks leading up to the 50th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service in 1966. It was assumed that visitation at most parks would continue to accelerate, and the plan included not only very visible enhancements like visitor centers, interpretive facilities, and amphitheaters, but also more mundane yet obviously important items like utility and roadway improvements.
In the Smokies, which would become the nation’s most popular park as measured in visitor numbers, Mission 66 included work in three areas that continue to experience heavy visitation 55 years later: the Sugarlands Visitor Center, the Clingmans Dome observation tower, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The park also saw the addition of numerous campgrounds and picnic areas.
When work began on the Sugarlands site near the park’s Gatlinburg entrance, the concept of the visitor center was still relatively new in the park system. Now the centers are a central element of virtually every park—a headquarters, a stopping point, an information center, a rest area, and a shopping area for visitors. The Knoxville News-Sentinel carried a story on October 24, 1960, marking the dedication of the visitor center, an event attended by NPS director Conrad Wirth.
Marking the highest point in the park, the Clingmans Dome tower had been completed the previous year. A structure of modern design, the tower drew significant criticism from those who saw it as an unwelcome addition to the Smokies’ woodland landscape, but it remains one of the park’s most popular spots.
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail invited visitors to view one of the park’s best streamside landscapes from the comfort of their vehicles. It also sparked a bit of controversy from opponents who wanted fewer roads in the park.
The influence of the Mission 66 program continues in the Smokies today, more than a half-century after its workings transformed the national park system across the country.
Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.